Traveling with a Truck Camper

The nuts and bolts of snowbirding with my new(ish) home away from home.

Camper at Home
Here’s the Turtleback, parked on my truck in front of my RV garage. I usually stage it for a trip here, where I have easy access to water, power, and sewer connections.

Back in April of this year, I bought a 2005 Lance slide-in truck camper that I’ve dubbed the Turtleback. This was a huge step down in size from the fifth wheel I bought back in 2010, the Mobile Mansion, which I sold in September of this year. I wanted something more convenient to travel with and I got it. My 2012 Ford F350 SuperDuty Diesel carries the Turtleback like it’s nothing, making it easy to drive and park nearly anywhere I like. I tested it out on an overnight trip in the Leavenworth area not long after getting it and then again on a week-long foray in the North Cascades of Washington state and southern British Columbia. It’s the perfect rig for any spur-of-the moment trip; I can have it on the truck in about 30 minutes and put it away in my cavernous RV garage even quicker.

But how would it do on a very long trip? Like a 3-month trip?

That’s what I’m learning this snowbirding season. So far, so good. Although most of my traveling has involved overnight stops in a variety of locations ranging from a gravel side road overlooking a relatively remote Nevada lake to a partial-hookup campsite on the Columbia River, I’ve also parked it for two of more nights and disconnected it from my truck so I could drive while leaving it behind. My “postcards” that allude to this have generated a few questions and I thought I’d answer them here.

Hooking Up the Camper

Setting a slide-in truck camper atop a truck isn’t difficult to do, but it does require care and patience.

The most difficult part is getting the truck tailgate off. Due to the weight, I can’t do it by myself. I usually grab a visiting friend and enlist his or her help. First unplug the cable for the backup camera in the tailgate, then disconnect the cables that hold it up when it’s dropped, then angle it out of its pin hinges. I have a cart roughly the same height as the truck bed that I’ve covered with an old saddle blanket and we lay the tailgate on that. This makes it possible for me to move it around the garage without help. I use the same cart to store the hardware needed to secure the camper to the truck.

Sometime before putting the camper on, I visit the local Discount Tire shop and have them inspect the tires. They’re relatively new — I bought them last February while traveling and have been getting them rotated on schedule. I ask the guy to inflate them to the maximum pressure. We usually do 70 pounds for the front tires and 80 for the rear ones. Of course, I could do this at home — I have a good compressor in my shop — but I like the idea of having the tires looked at, especially before a long trip.

When I get home, I use my own compressor to inflate the air bags under the truck bed. There are two of them and I inflate each to about 50 pounds. This cranks up the back of the truck a bit, but the weight of the camper will bring it back to level once installed.

Next, I need to install the four support bars on the truck. They’re marked with their positions: passenger front, driver, rear, etc. They slip into slots I had installed on the truck and are secured in place with pins. This takes about five minutes. Once I put these on, they stay on until the camper is put away after a trip.

When I’m ready to put the camper on the truck, I begin by using a remote control to crank up the camper so that its bottom is higher than the truck bed. This utilizes the four camper “legs,” which have electric jacks on them. The control can raise or lower them all together or individually. Obviously, it’s a lot quicker to extend the legs (thus raising the camper) all at once, but I do have to be careful that all four legs are on the ground. Occasionally I’ll have to extend one a bit more by itself to keep them all grounded.

Then I slowly and carefully back the truck under the camper. The truck has to go straight back with the camper centered over the bed. There’s only about two inches of clearance on each side. I watch my progress through the back window — I have to put down the rear seat to see clearly. Sometimes I get out and check my progress; rushing is never a good idea. When I’m about 3/4 finished, I get out, climb on one of those support bars, and reach into the truck bed to plug in the camper’s power cable. This not only keeps the camper’s battery charged while I’m driving, but it also powers and controls the camper’s running lights and brake lights. Then I get back in the truck and back the rest of the way in.

Spacer
Here’s the spacer, made with 2x4s, that the camper’s previous owner gave me when I bought it. It prevents the camper from damaging the taillight lenses.

Normally, you’d back up until the front of the camper bumps the lip of the truck bed right behind the cab. But because my truck has somewhat bulging taillights, if I backed up that far, the camper’s overhang would rub on my taillight lenses, scratching or breaking them. The previous owner’s truck was a 2013 Ford F350 nearly identical to mine. He’d taken short lengths of 2×4 lumber and had built a rectangle spacer that sits upright against the cab. He gave it to me when I bought the camper. So when I back up, the front of the camper bumps this 2×4 spacer, thus keeping the camper at least 2 inches back from where it would otherwise be. This makes it impossible for the camper to damage the taillight lenses.

Once the camper is in position, I shut down the truck, get out again, and use the remote to retract the camper’s legs. Little by little, the truck takes the full weight of the camper. The back end of the truck comes down. And then the legs of the camper start rising off the ground. I keep retracting them until they’re all within 4 inches from their stops. Again, sometimes this requires me to raise them individually. When I’m done, I can put the remote away in a little pocket I installed inside the camper door.

The last step is to use four spring-loaded screw tie-downs to attach the camper to the bars I installed earlier on the truck. This is the most time-consuming part because they always need to be adjusted. To adjust them, I use two 3/4 inch wrenches that I keep in a special bin with other tools related to the tie-downs in a compartment on the outside of the camper. I use the wrenches to loosen a bolt, then twist the spring up or down on the screw. When the screw’s length is long enough to keep the tie-down tight but not too tight, I tighten the bolt back up to keep it in place. I figure it takes me about 10 to 15 minutes to install all four tie-downs.

Tie-Downs
Here’s what the tie-downs on the driver’s side look like when installed. I leave the handle attached to the front driver’s side tie-down so it’s easy to disconnect when I refuel.

At this point, everything is done and I’m ready to roll. I figure that the active loading time (not including removing the tailgate or tending to the tire/airbag pressure) is about 30 minutes.

Prepping the Camper for Travel

Like any other RV, you need to prep the interior for travel. That means making sure all cabinets are securely latched, all loose items are secured, all windows and vents are closed, the antenna is cranked down, and the slide has been slid in. If there’s food in the fridge, I need to make sure it’s set to Auto mode so it automatically switches to propane when it’s not plugged in.

On the outside, I obviously need to make sure all water, sewer, and power is disconnected and all hoses and cables are stowed. Then I walk around and make sure all outside storage spaces are latched, the back door is securely closed, and the back step is up.

The last step is to tug on each of the tie-downs to make sure they’re still tight. As I drive, the camper shifts and one or more of the tie-downs can loosen up. That’s why I keep the wrenches handy. It takes about 5 minutes to adjust them before starting out for the day.

On the Road

The truck is definitely top heavy when I drive with the camper on board. I drive at the speed limit — never have to worry about getting a ticket! — and take curves and corners slowly.

I have to watch headspace. I’m not sure exactly how tall the rig is, but I figure 12 feet maximum to the top of the air conditioner. That means no drive-throughs or parking garages.

As for width, the rig is definitely wider than my truck, but its no wider than any other road-legal RV (8-1/2 feet). That means there’s no problems on any roads or going through any gates.

As for length, the camper adds about 2 feet to the back of my truck. That makes my already long truck even longer. Still, I can usually fit it in a parking space. This is a real joy when I make stops along the way for hikes or visiting other places of interest. With the Mobile Mansion, I was kept out of far too many places because I wouldn’t be able to fit in, park, or even turn around.

Trailhead parking
Want to go for a hike? No problem. My rig fits into trailhead parking spots, just like any other full-sized pickup.

And since the truck has high clearance and four wheel drive, I can drive it just about anywhere I like without worrying about getting stuck or bottoming out.

Another benefit of the setup is having easy access to my living space any time I’m stopped. Although it has a slide that must be closed in transit, I can still get into the camper to use any of its features while the slide is in. More than once, I’ve stopped for a hike or a rest and used the bathroom or made a meal in the kitchen. I recently reheated some leftovers in the microwave while at a scenic view area; prep the food on a plate, stick it in the microwave, push a button to start the onboard generator, run the microwave, turn off the generator, pull the plate out of the microwave. Can’t get any easier than that.

Overnight Parking

When I stop for the night, I can pull into a site any way I like. I usually park with the best view out the back. It easy enough to back up or park on any sort of angle in relation to a parking spot or campsite. (You can find a blog post about my “poor man’s backup camera” here.)

Level
Two levels like this help me keep the camper level, whether it’s on the truck or on its own. This indicates the front end is high.

Legos
In this photo, I’ve used my leveling blocks to make a ramp that I’ve driven up to raise the driver’s side back wheel. I left it parked that way overnight.

My mail concern is getting the camper relatively level. This helps the refrigerator work more efficiently, but it also makes it more comfortable for my stay. No one likes to live in a space that’s slanted. If I can’t find a level spot to park on, I have Lego-like blocks I can use under one or more truck tires to help level it out.

If I’m parking for the night and plan to leave in the morning, I don’t need to offload the camper. I just shut off and lock the truck and move into the camper. Opening the slide is as easy as turning a key. If my overnight parking space has utility hookups, I can connect water, power, and even sewer with the camper still on the truck. If I don’t have a hookup, I can use battery power, propane, and the onboard generator (if needed) to operate the refrigerator, stove, water heater, furnace, etc. Only the microwave and air conditioner require more power than the batteries can provide; the generator can run either one. The camper holds 30 gallons of fresh water; a battery-powered pump delivers it to any faucet or the toilet. There’s even a solar panel on the roof to help keep the batteries fully charged during daylight hours.

Overnight Parking
Here’s my rig parked for the night in the desert near Wickenburg, AZ.

Off-Loading the Camper

If I plan to park for more than just one night, I’ll likely want to be able to drive the truck without the camper loaded. This means off-loading the camper. Again, this isn’t very difficult to do.

Once I’ve got it parked where I want it, I remove the tie-downs. In most cases, this means removing the securing pin and using a detachable handle to loosen it. I must remove them from the truck but can leave them dangling from the camper if I like. I usually completely remove them, however, and stow them in a safe place where they’ll stay clean and dry.

Then I use the remote to extend the legs so the camper is completely raised at least two inches off the truck. I get in the truck, pull forward a few feet, get out, unplug the camper’s power from the truck, get back in, and pull out the rest of the way. I must be completely clear of the camper.

Next, I use the remote to retract the legs so the camper is lowered back down. The lower it is, the more stable it is for moving around inside. The only thing I need to be careful of is the pipe for the generator’s muffler. Normally, I stop lowering when that’s at least a foot off the ground. I then consult the level indicators on the side and back of the camper and use the remote to raise or lower legs individually to get the camper level, again being careful to ensure that all four legs are solidly on the ground.

Parked at KOA
Here’s the camper and truck parked side by side at the KOA in Las Vegas. Note that I had a full hookup so I had all my hoses and 30 amp cable out. I’ve since bought a much shorter hose.

Sawhorses
Here are the saw horses I bought at Home Depot. They collapse down into a small package and have handles to move them around.

If the camper will be parked for more than just a few days — as it is now and will be again at least a few times later in my travels — I help stabilize it by placing three collapsable saw horses under it. I bought these at Home Depot for about $50 each. Each one can (supposedly) support 1300 pounds. Since the camper (supposedly) weighs about 3500 pounds, I figure three should support it comfortably. The trick is to position them properly and adjust them to the proper height on ground that might not be level. Then I lower the camper onto them to the point where the sawhorses are taking about half the weight. All the legs are still within contact of the ground and (hopefully) supporting some of the weight. This prevents the camper from rocking when I move around inside, thus preventing damage to the legs. (I should mention here that I built a wheeled platform that performs the same function in my garage at home. That can actually take all of the camper’s weight.)

Sawhorses add stability
Here’s the camper on its sawhorses while parked in my friend’s backyard. It’ll be set up like this for at least two weeks and I’ll be in and out to clean and unpack/repack it. I have to confess that I lowered it onto one of the sawhorses before the others could share the weight and two of the sawhorse legs bent; I exchanged it for a new one at Home Depot yesterday and will be more careful in the future.

I figure that it takes about 15 minutes to offload the camper. Add about 10 minutes for the sawhorses, when used.

Why this Works for Me

As you can see, it’s pretty convenient for traveling. On the road, it’s like driving a big (but not huge) truck. When parked long term, it’s like living in a small trailer.

While towing a trailer might be easier for hooking up or unhooking when parked, having a pull trailer has two drawbacks. First, it isn’t as easy to get into tight parking lots or into campsites. Second, you can’t really tow something behind a pull trailer.

Although I’m not towing anything on this trip, I do have the ability to tow if I want to. I debated for months on whether I should bring my boat with me on this trip. In the end, I decided against it, mostly because I didn’t want the bother of having a difficult to park rig. But if I were going on a trip up to Roosevelt Lake or Lake Powell or anyplace else where it would be nice to have both an RV and a boat, I’m all set to do it. All I need is a tow bar extender, which is widely available online and in RV stores. My truck definitely has the power to pull it all.

So far, I’m very pleased with the way this has been working for me. But let’s see how I feel in three months after another 2,000 miles. I’ll have to report an update then.

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Laughlin, NV

I left Vegas and headed south today. My goal was to find a campsite along the Colorado River near Needles, CA. The direct route took me down Route 95, a typical, mostly straight, desert highway. But when I saw the turn for Laughlin,NV, on the Colorado River, I made a detour. I wanted ice cream.

Laughlin is, in my opinion anyway, a poor man’s Las Vegas. It’s a cluster of about 10 high-rise casino hotels right on the edge of the river. Named for the man who developed the area, Don Laughlin, it attracts mostly seniors from the Sun City area near Phoenix, as well as snowbirds passing through. Indeed, the parking lots were jampacked with motorhomes and trucks pulling fifth wheel trailers.

I’ve been to Laughlin a few times. My wasband and I flew in together at least once, probably in my first helicopter. Back in those days, the airport across the river in Bullhead City, AZ was very close to the river. You’d land and park and then get out and walk to a dock right on the river. A boat would come across the river to fetch you and bring you to Laughlin. I’m pretty sure the boat shuttle was free. 

The time we went there, we went for one of the cheap buffets for lunch. I remember seeing an elderly couple there stuffing food into the pockets of their jackets. I suspect they might’ve been homeless or close to it and had somehow gotten up the money to come to the buffet. It was very sad.

Nowadays, the airport runway is up the hill a bit, farther from the river. The old runway has been turned into a commercial area; there’s a Home Depot on part of it now. When you come in and land, you can still get a shuttle across the river, but it’s in a shuttle van that drives across the bridge. Funny how things change.

Anyway, today I stopped at the Colorado Belle and asked the valet parking attendant where the closest ice cream was. Penny and I walked along the Riverwalk to the Aquarius hotel casino, which I don’t recall being there the last time I was there. I tied Penny up outside, went in, and got ice cream in two cups. We sat by the river and enjoyed them. A lot of old people walked by. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I was the youngest visitor around.

I took these photos before we walked back to the truck. Amazing how blue the water and sky are, eh?

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Behind the Scenes at KÀ

I saw the Cirque du Soleil show KÀ yesterday at the MGM Grand Hotel. I didn’t realize it, but it was the third longest running show in Las Vegas. It’s also the first Cirque du Soleil show to actually have a storyline.

The show was amazing — no doubt about that. Then I had great seats: seventh row center. But I still came out feeling a little disappointed. I like Cirque du Soleil with various acts within the show. And the costumes, of course. And the music. While this show had acrobatic acts and costumes and music, I felt that it relied too heavily on the special effects made available through the incredible stage set up. Simply said: it was a technological marvel more than the amazing human performance i’ve come to expect from Cirque du Soleil.

Yesterday evening, on my way to the show, I heard an announcement that they were going to have a “open house” at the KÀ theater at 11 o’clock today. Because my schedule is sort of free-flowing, I made time to go see it.

It was a half hour presentation led by a man who is involved with the show. After discussing some of the items on display in the lobby of the theater, he brought us inside where we sat in seats and he told us about the various stages and sound system. The theater has 10 stages, several of which move. The most amazing one is the giant flat stage that can be raised, lowered, tilted, and spun. As he told us about this large stage, someone demonstrated the various things it could do, including instantaneously deploying dozens of rods that the performers can use for acrobatics. They then put the stage on its side in a vertical position and used it as a screen for projections they gave us further information about the production.

In all, the open house was fascinating and I’m very glad I stuck around to attend. Here are a few pictures I shot of the theater.

I should mention here that I love to do behind the scenes tours. If you use the search box for this blog, you could find a post about a tour I tagged along on of the Kolb Studios at the Grand Canyon.

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: The Las Vegas Strip Walk

One of my very favorite things to do when I come to Las Vegas is to take a very brisk walk along the Strip, walking through hotels and their shopping areas. I start at one end — normally Mandalay Bay or Luxor — and walk along the west side of Las Vegas Boulevard northbound. If I’m feeling very energetic, I can usually get up to Treasure Island. Then I cross the street and I take an equally brisk walk down the other side. This is not a straight line walk; sometimes I’m on the sidewalk, sometimes I’m on a casino floor, sometimes I’m in a shopping area. I zigzag my way north and then south. I do this early in the day, always before noon, and I usually start around 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning. That’s when Las Vegas is just starting to wake up but not yet fully engaged.

I did that walk today, although I only got as far as Caesars Palace. I like Caesars, although I’ve never stayed there. I always visit it when I come to town. It was kind of neat to see sashes over the statuary proclaiming Caesars 50th anniversary. It’s really an historic hotel casino, mostly because it’s one of the first on the strip. It used to be a very classy joint inside, but now not quite as much. Everything gets tacky over time in Las Vegas.

One of the reasons I didn’t get any further than Caesars is because of time constraints — I was supposed to meet some friends for lunch. The other reason is that I’m simply out of shape and couldn’t keep up that brisk pace for more than what turned out to be a total of 5 miles. Who says hiking needs to be done in the woods?

I did do some shopping in Caesars Forum Shops. I bought a couple of pairs of jeans and a sweater. I also bought dark chocolate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in the Hershey’s store in another casino.  As I mentioned on Twitter, it was a real pleasure to be able to walk through a shopping area without having to stop at every single watch shop or men’s shoe store. That’s one thing about my wasband that I don’t miss it all.

Anyway, these are some of the photos I took along the walk. One of the things I love about Las Vegas is how surreal it is; I think some of these photos illustrate that.

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Luxor and Blue Man Group

After a 5 hour drive from Walker Lake to Las Vegas, which included a harrowing drive on slippery roads near Goldfield, Nevada, where cars were spinning off the road everywhere, I arrived in Las Vegas shortly after 2 PM. With tickets to see the Blue Man Group at 7 o’clock, I thought I had plenty of time to relax, take a shower, get dressed, and go get some dinner before the show. I made dinner reservations for 5:15 and at 4:30, I headed out. That’s when I actually looked at my ticket. It said the show time was 4 PM.  

Shit. 

Long story short: The very nice folks at the box office traded my 4 PM ticket for 7 PM ticket. The amazing thing about this? I still had a third row center seat, on the other side of the aisle from where I would’ve been sitting at 4 o’clock.

So I had dinner and saw the show exactly as I had originally planned. It was a great show and afterwards I got a selfie with one of the cast members. I also took some photos of Luxor before leaving. 

I first stayed at Luxor when it was about a year old and there was still a boat ride that went around the circumference of the pyramid. That was back in Las Vegas’s idiotic family days, when they thought they could build casinos to attract families. Luxor had game arcades in the space currently occupied by restaurants and shows. It was a weird place but I could get a suite in the corner of the pyramid that included a Jacuzzi right in front of the big window. I could soak in the tub and watch the happenings on the Strip far below me while tour helicopters flew by. 

I’ve been to Vegas more times than I can count and I’ve been there by myself most of those times. I seem to enjoy it more on my own, making my own decisions about food and shows and how to spend my time. I don’t gamble and I’m not much of a drinker but I do love to walk through the casinos to see what outrageous new things they’re showing off. I’ll do my casino walk tomorrow morning — it’s a great way to get exercise.